Some years ago while serving as a Rabbi in Buffalo, New York I remember standing at my place in Shul, Sunday morning, seeing the large oak door to the Shul open a crack. There at the door was an elderly woman, a member of the congregation, who was motioning for me to come out to speak with her. I came out and the woman who I knew quite well looked very anxious. “Rebbe”, she said, “I need to be matir neder.” She felt she had made a vow, which requires the nullification of a beit din and asked me if I could convene this beit din in Shul immediately following services. Obviously I complied and after davening that morning three of us sat alone in the back of the very old Shul with Mrs. Segal standing before us.
She took out her siddur and opened it to the place that was already marked with her forefinger and began to recite the standard formula for the nullification of vows. She looked out of the siddur and with great emotion told the following story. “Forty years ago, you should never know from such things, I lived in a Nazi Labor camp. Living day by day would have been a luxury, we lived minute by minute. I didn’t think I would live to see freedom again and I said to G-d, “I don’t think I will make it out of here alive, but if I do I will come out with a whole new perspective, a brand new appreciation for life. If I come out of this alive I promise you G-d I will never throw away a piece of bread, ever.”
That was my promise, she continued, and I’ve always kept my promise to G-d but today my two grandchildren came to visit. Kids are kids and some bread was disgraced. I realized that perhaps I’m not in a position to keep my promise that I made to G-d so many years ago. But raboisai I know that a neder needs a pesach. (an out) What do I know now that I didn’t consider before? In my wildest dreams I couldn’t see Jewish grandchildren in my life. My appreciation for bread, for life and for children is greater now than it ever was, nevertheless I feel I must annul the vow.” We all said together, “Mutar loch, Mutar loch, Mutar loch!” and Mrs. Segal went home.
Forty years ago in this country there were very few Jewish schools and Yeshivos, as we know them today. Nobody knew for sure that there ever would be a renaissance of Torah and Yiddishkeit in America. What there was, and some of this even I can remember, were teams of yeshiva bochurim that traveled around the country during their summer and winter break. They went to places like Sioux City, Iowa and Fort Worth, Texas armed with suitcases full of tuna fish and a strong sense of camaraderie. Their mission was to try to salvage the Jewish soul. They tried to start little day schools or Sunday schools that would somehow cater to the American Jewish boy or girl that otherwise didn’t stand a chance as far as Yiddishkeit was concerned. They visited parents, Rabbis, philanthropists and anyone who would listen to them. They would spend a week in a city and sometimes reach two children or one family. They sowed the seeds of Torah that has blossomed into the majestic forest of Torah and Torah communities that stands before us today. At that time the Jewish Neshama had a value beyond rubies. The individual importance of each boy or girl was beyond description. I’m sure they silently promised Hashem that they would never take a Jewish child for granted.
Thank G-d, at least in places like New York, it seems that we have arrived. Torah is thriving, classrooms are full, and beautiful edifices are being built. There is a danger in success. We can forget the neder that we have made to never treat a Jewish boy or girl as a number. We can forget that no matter how many we have and how many we have produced the Jewish Neshama is still priceless and beautiful. There was a time that if we would meet another Shomer Shabbos or someone wearing a Yarmulke we would feel like hugging them. They were important, we were brothers. We would open up our hearts and our homes to them. We would get involved in helping with their shiduchin, their parnossa and what ever else is important in another Jews life. I dare say that at times, in some places it seems that the neder has been somehow forgotten.
The most important thing to think about on Tisha B’av is the importance of every Jewish Neshama. If we value every Neshama we will love every Jew. Then we will be ready for Jerusalem!